Critic Pete Wells caused quite a stir with his New York Times’ article, “Leaving a Tip: A Custom in Need of Changing?” Tipping is always a topic that generates a lot of opinions and, thanks to the internet, many, many, comments. He points to a few restaurants trying out the salary method, where gratuity is included in the price of menu items and all the staff gets their fair share. And Wells supports this, as a diner. And that’s all fine and good, but you wouldn’t catch me waiting tables at a place like that. And I feel like other service industry folks might agree.
As an ex-server, I could regale you with millions of stories about annoying diners. From the way they order water to the way they ask questions without looking at the menu first. Sure, I’ve been down on my hands and knees cleaning up Cheerios and spilled milk with five new tables waiting and food dying in the window. But I’m still going to smile and be nice to you. It was my job. I wanted you to like me and I wanted you to tip me well. Servers and bartenders have all been there, and the good ones, who genuinely want to make your dining experience better, deserve that 20 percent–plus tip.
So why do people still sign up for the service industry? Even though they’re guaranteed to run around for ten hours on a Saturday night without a break, their Dansko-ed feet aching, and two minutes to scarf some old dried up staff meal?
It’s that wad of cash at the end of the night. The flexibility in the fact that if you kind of don’t feel like going to work or you’re sick, there’s usually someone who will pick up your shift via text message. Wouldn’t a lot of that change if it became a salaried vocation? For a good portion of servers it’s their second job, the first being art, music, school, or teaching. For these folks, it’s not their passion; it pays the bills. Waiting tables is not their profession. There are many wonderful and successful career servers out there, but I bet even the professionals would rather keep their own tips.
Wells does make a very important point about the server and kitchen divide in the industry. I was never keen on the idea of making double or triple what the kitchen workers were making. They were working just as hard, if not harder. My hope is that more restaurant owners will follow in the footsteps of local restaurateur and my former employer Tom Douglas. He recently raised wages for the back of the house workers to $15 per hour. At his expense, not the expense of the servers.
What would happen if you take away the incentive of the possibility of a nice tip? Those servers who don’t seem to have the muscles in their face to make a smile or know how to prioritize aren’t going to give better service, for sure. And those that give you stellar, impeccable well-timed dining experiences full of spot on jokes and pertinent information aren’t going to gain anything either. Also, I find it interesting that Wells didn’t ask any servers to weigh in on this matter.
Working in a restaurant can be like playtime—there's wine tastings, menu meetings, and a camaraderie of the staff. It’s the opposite of office work. It’s a workplace where people actually talk to one another face-to-face instead of on email and chat. It depends solely on social interactions with guests and diners. You talk with strangers on a personal level about food. And, trust me, people are weird about food. It’s so dissimilar to office culture, why would it pay in the same fashion? It deserves what Wells calls its “irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing” pay scale. Yeah, it would be boring to talk about how you get paid the same amount every other week with direct deposit. Or how you fill out an invoice that is approved and passed along to payroll. But it’s what makes the service industry, well, the service industry.
Some people are still going to tip poorly whether you gave them the best or the worst service. This comes with the territory. And some people will always tip 20 percent or more for the same reason. The latter is nice when you’re the one getting the tips, but it shouldn’t be the norm. If I give you terrible service—and most people in the industry know if they are giving good service or not—then give me a tip to match. It’s going to come out pretty even in the end either way, and, hey, there’s always tomorrow night.